Are your people chomping at the bit to get back to work? Are people so terrified of a few germs they refuse to return? Are they so happy working from home they’ll take any excuse to continue avoiding the office? Or is it something else?
Here’s the tricky part: how do you know?
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggests there is a disconnect between people returning to indoor dining and sporting events, and still not willing to go back to the workplace. The underlying assumption is that while some people are legitimately concerned about the Omicron resurgence, a lot of people are (how do we put this delicately?) less than forthcoming about their real reasons for preferring to work from home.
In the last two years, approximately a third of the North American workforce has spent some time working from home. A lot of people hated it and couldn’t wait to return. Others loved it and are in no hurry to face commutes, strict working hours, and dealing with Larry in Accounting. Some would just like to have a choice and more flexibility.
Like most workplace policy issues, determining what’s going on is difficult. The answers probably lie on a spectrum.
Some (small) percentage of employees are lying weasels.
Yes, that’s a possibility. But just like “they won’t work if we aren’t there to supervise them, “ this is more paranoia than fact. Turns out, most people are telling you at least some of the truth.
People are legitimately afraid of catching a virus.
For all the screaming about “freeeedom” and trucks blocking highways because this is all a hoax and a government plot, there are at least as many people who are legitimately concerned about a virus that has contributed to the deaths of 900,000 Americans and millions more around the world. And it’s not just fear for themselves. Yes, they might be immunocompromised, or have chronic health conditions that leave them way more vulnerable than their coworkers. Further, many people are caretakers for those in their households, like elderly parents, who are at significant risk. As people get vaccinated or just fed up, we need to remember that just because you are now willing to accept more risk, not everyone is in your position.
People are just “faking it” because they don’t want to go back.
If you personally aren’t concerned about the virus it’s easy to assume that anyone who disagrees with you is “brainwashed by the media,” or just so happy with their current working arrangement they aren’t willing to suck it up and get back to work as it was in the Before Times. But maybe their reluctance is based in mistrust? Trust in their employer plays a huge role in willingness to return.
Companies don’t have a plan yet and aren’t inspiring confidence.
As the rest of the world begins to emerge from the shadow of COVID, the workplace is a bit of a landmine. If they mandate vaccinations or masks, a vocal minority will complain and threaten legal action. If they don’t allow people to wear masks or ask for legitimate legal accommodations, there are problems there. Furthermore, is it really safe to return or is the company just desperate to get back to normal? If I choose to wear a mask for my own protection, but my coworker complains, will the company have my back?
People have had the time to reexamine the way they want to work going forward but the company isn’t ready to have that honest conversation.
Even after two years, a lot of organizations don’t have a plan in place to align their HR and performance management systems with the more flexible work people are asking for. If the company doesn’t know what the new hybrid workplace will look like, how confident are the employees that this is an environment they want to work in. It’s easier to keep working from home until people get the answers they seek.
How confident are you that you know each employee’s reasons for being reluctant to return to the office? By the same token, how sure are you that people are really comfortable returning and not just complying out of fear for their jobs?
The answer is communication and honest conversation. Yes, anonymous employee surveys help. But nothing will help you understand the way your people are thinking than good old-fashioned, rich, conversation.
Regardless of whether you’re in the office, working remotely, or in some hybrid role, being a good teammate is still the goal. That’s why 12 Weeks to Being a Great Remote Teammate is such an important and successful learning program.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.